Tim McDonnell joined Climate Desk after stints at Mother Jones and Sierra magazine. He remains a cheerful guy despite covering climate change all the time. Originally from Tucson, Tim loves tortillas and epic walks.
Unless you've been living off the grid, you've probably heard about President Obama's "all of the above" plan for America's energy future, which embraces everything from oil drilling and natural gas fracking to wind, solar, and even pond scum. In the last couple years the Obama administration has pumped billions into cutting-edge clean energy tech. But these all share a common problem: plugging into an electric grid that is mostly unchanged since the 1930s. Energy experts say meeting our carbon-footprint reduction goals will remain a pipe dream until we can revamp electricity distribution. The solution? The "smart grid," a nickname for a sweeping series of updates on everything from power stations to the meter in your home, which promises to save power and money by being sensitive to your energy use.
In the second installment of Climate Desk'sFuture Energy series, see how America is modernizing the largest machine on the planet.
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Nobel laureate Toni Morrison is known for novels in which female protagonists struggle to wrest control of their lives from an establishment bent on their destruction. Home, by contrast, tells the story of Korean War vet Frank Money, who returns from the battlefield plagued by visions of his friends' deaths and a disturbing episode that cuts at the roots of his sexual and moral identity. While his demons are mostly internal, Money still struggles to find a place in a society where "there was no goal other than breathing, nothing to win...nothing to survive or worth surviving for." Salvation awaits, however, in his tiny Georgia hometown.
In 2011, the White Stripes called it quits. "It was necessary to announce that the White Stripes didn't exist anymore for me to really put myself out there as a solo artist," frontman Jack White told Rolling Stone.
By then, White had carved a niche for himself as an artist in his own right, making the rounds between two high-octane rock n' roll bands, The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather, and at last founding a brick-and-mortar outfit for his eight-year-old private label, Third Man Records, in Nashville. But he hadn't yet done the thing one would most naturally predict from a solo artist: a solo project.
That changed last Tuesday with the release of Blunderbuss, White's "debut" album as a solo artist. It's a wild-eyed, lushly orchestrated work that tends to showcase White's ear as a songwriter over his hand as a guitarist. Both talents were on display Friday night as White and his vast and fluid retinue of backing musicians played New York City's Webster Hall.
The small, dim space was sold out to a crowd of black-leather-jacketed punk rockers, moms with cargo pants tucked into combat boots, greasy hippies, and a healthy contingent of clean-cut white kids who looked to have walked off the set of Girls. Photographers circulated with Polaroid cameras, leaving behind a wake of happy couples shaking negatives. Whispers (unconfirmed) circulated that Jim Carrey was quaffing champagne on the balcony. The show was broadcast live on YouTube; one might not have noticed but for a moment just before the first set when a screen descended and played a Jack White music video, presumably being watched simultaneously by eyes from Tulsa to Tokyo, for which, in a bizarrely meta twenty-first century moment, we all clapped.
Opening the show were The Black Belles, a Third Man Records-produced trio of white-faced, black-lipsticked femmes fatales who looked like they ditched out on Slytherin Quidditch practice to ride down to the Lower East Side on broomsticks, smoking cigarettes and blasting the Sex Pistols. Their set left behind a vague scent of premature Halloween. This was compounded by the stage hands, who drifted about in a fog of dry ice and sported porkpie hats and prodigious beards, as if the fresh ghost of Levon Helm were keeping watch in the wings.
The Obama administration took a heavy swing in the ongoing battle over fracking today by imposing new rules that would, for the first time, restrict the release of smog-causing pollutants from natural gas wells. But the law turns a blind eye to greenhouse gases released by fracking; the EPA admits fracking accounts for 40 percent of the nation's overall methane (an even stronger greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide) emissions.
By 2015, all fracked wells will be required to implement "green completion" equipment, which catches toxic gases like benzene on its way out of the earth and into the atmosphere. But the rule does not directly limit emissions of greenhouse gases.
David Doniger of the Natural Resources Defense Council said the EPA's move to exclude greenhouse gases from the ruling was likely political: "If you're controlling toxic air pollutants, right-wing ideologues are back on their heels, but when the EPA goes after climate change, all the right-wing nuts come out of the woodwork." Still, Doniger stressed that while the rule could have gone further, the mandated equipment would indirectly take a big bite out of methane emissions.
The announcement has already excited many in the areas of Pennsylvania where fracking is a fact of daily life. "As a resident near a gas field, air pollution is way scarier than water well contamination," said Susquehanna County environmental organizer Rebecca Roter, referring to the other major concern many locals have about fracking.
Matt Walker of Pennsylvania's Clean Air Council stressed that while the rule is a boon for health concerns, further regulation was needed to curb the release of gases, like carbon dioxide and methane, that contribute to global warming. "We need to keep pushing," he said. "We hope the EPA will set standards for greenhouse gases in the future."
Gina McCarthy of the EPA said the mandate would yield a 90 percent reduction in air pollutants released as a byproduct of the fracking process at some 13,000 gas wells nationwide.
"Green completion" equipment is already mandatory in some states, and is already in place at nearly half the nation's natural gas wells, McCarthy said, but the three-year rollout period was requested by industry leaders to allow all well operators time to purchase, install, and train employees on it.
You've heard about the Foxconn factory in China where your iPad is assembled. But have you ever considered the energy required to store your emails, photos, and videos in the cloud? As worldwide demand for data storage skyrockets, so do the power needs of the servers where all our digital archives live. While some companies (like Facebook) have made great progress in ditching dirty fossil-fuel energy for cleaner renewables, a few internet giants lag far behind. Climate Desk visited Maiden, North Carolina, for a close-up view of what will soon be one of the world's biggest data centers—owned by Apple and powered by the coal-heavy power behemoth Duke Energy.
UPDATE: A spokeswoman for Apple pushed back in a statement to Climate Desk after publication that the Maiden facility will be the "greenest data center ever built," and released figures that dispute Greenpeace's report. Greenpeace's report estimates the facility will draw 100 megawatts of power. Apple says the facility will use 20 megawatts at full capacity, and is on track to supply more than 60 percent of that power on-site from renewable sources including a solar farm and fuel cell installation, "which will each be the largest of their kind in the country." Suzanne Goldenberg from Climate Desk partner site The Guardian, quotes Greenpeace's Gary Cook as remaining skeptical about Apple's internal numbers: "I do feel that's a bit of a lowball number. That would be a very empty building they are putting there in terms of power demand if it's only 20MW. That seems disproportionally small," he said.
Apple's new data center is only one of many coal-fueled server farms across the country. The map below shows 52 of the largest, owned by companies like Google, Amazon, Apple, and Twitter. Mouse over a point on the map to see who owns the plant, and how reliant on coal it is, according to Greenpeace estimates. (Some data centers are clustered close together; zoom in on a particular area to see each one in more detail.)
The figures in the map are for individual data centers. To give you a better sense of the big picture, here's an overview of how much of each company's overall energy comes from coal, according to Greenpeace estimates: